British Columbia

UBC football team rides wave of change to Vanier Cup

From CIS cupcake to Vanier Cup contender: How money, a coach, a quarterback and Warren Moon have brought legitimacy back to the UBC football program.

After years of mediocrity, Thunderbird football is flying high. Just ask Warren Moon.

Having Warren Moon as a mentor is special says UBC quarterback Michael O'Connor. (Richard Lam/UBC Thunderbirds)

There's been no shortage of big moments for quarterback Michael O'Connor in a season spent leading the long-time sad sack UBC football team to a storybook revival.

But perhaps the 19-year-old's biggest thrill has been after a game, when his cell phone buzzes with an incoming text from Warren Moon.

Warren. Freaking. Moon.

"Having Warren Moon as a mentor is, ah, so special," said an understated O'Connor, speaking from Quebec City where the Thunderbirds will face the Montreal Carabins in Saturday's Vanier Cup.  

The most recent Moon message arrived last weekend after UBC beat St. Francis of Xavier to advance to the Canadian university championship game for the first time in 18 years.

"He just said great job so far this season but it's a new season now," said O'Connor.

Hiring head coach Blake Nill away from Calgary was the first step in the UBC team's football revival. (Richard Lam, UBC Thunderbirds)

O'Connor and Moon met at the Thunderbirds' training camp in August. The football legend (and only player in both the CFL and NFL halls of fame) was there as a guest coach, a somewhat surprising "get" for an unremarkable team that had won just two games the previous season, and less than a third of its games over the previous decade.

A series of 'surprising gets'

But "surprising gets" have been the hallmark of the T-Birds turnaround.

Six months earlier it was O'Connor himself with the stunning announcement he was bringing his talents to the Point Grey campus, leaving behind an NCAA Division 1 scholarship at Penn State and countless offers from other name U.S. schools.

Before that it was the off-season hiring of head coach Blake Nill, lured west from the powerhouse program at the University of Calgary.

The new coach and quarterback brought instant profile and legitimacy to the Thunderbirds, and once the season got going it was clear UBC would no longer be a CIS cupcake.

Overnight the T-Birds had become a contender, rolling to a 10-and-two record and a berth in the Vanier Cup. 

David Sidoo speaks with an injured UBC player at Thunderbird Stadium. (Bob Frid/UBC Athletics)

"It's just not logical what's happened here," said Nill, talking about the fact that his team is younger and physically smaller than all of the established CIS programs. 

But what makes perfect sense is that when money and talent combine with a solid plan, success is bound to follow. That's where David Sidoo gets credit.

Money and a vision

Sidoo is the former UBC and CFL player who made it his mission to bring both funding and a vision to the UBC program.

Drawing on his sport and business acumen, he recruited a well-heeled and well-connected group of men willing to breathe new life into varsity football through an alumni group called the 13th Man Foundation..

The speed and scope of the transformation has been nothing short of breathtaking. 

Nill says the 13th Man Foundation is finally allowing football to live up to the UBC brand.

"It's an amazing academic and research institution that thrives on selling excellence," he said. "Now there no question that UBC can do that at football as well."

Of course nothing says excellence like a championship title. The T-Birds have become an intriguing story, and for the first time in a long time Vancouver football fans are excited about the team.

So is Warren Moon.

UBC's most high profile booster was spotted in the Seattle Seahawks press box last weekend, wearing a Thunderbirds ball cap, demanding to know why Vancouver reporters in attendance weren't wearing theirs.

The advice he texted young Michael O'Connor in advance of the Vanier Cup, "Just go out and play the way you can."

If UBC upsets Montreal, it would be the most "surprising get" of all.  

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